BSS: Irreplaceable Wisconsin Sports Figures in 2017: #3: Giannis Antetokounmpo

posted by Jimmie Kaska and Joel Finkelman -

This week, the hosts of Big Sports Saturday, Joel Finkelman and Jimmie Kaska count down the five most irreplaceable sports figures as of May 2017. On Saturday, May 13, the most irreplaceable Wisconsin sports figure (according to Big Sports Saturday) will be revealed. The order of the ranking is almost irrelevant: if any of these five Wisconsin sports figures left their current positions, there would be a huge void to fill. There's also no criteria for this list other than: if the team removed this person, how big of an impact would it be?

#3: Giannis Antetokounmpo, All-Star and point-forward superstar of the Milwaukee Bucks, representing the hope of the near future of the franchise to become a contender

Jimmie Kaska: This one is a no-brainer concept. You need superstars to win. Giannis is the second-best player in his conference. If the Bucks dumped him for draft picks or three quarters on the dollar out of fear they needed to get something for him, we could realistically ask, what the hell is the point of rooting for the Bucks? You need a superstar to even have a 0.1% chance. Giannis is that guy.

Joel Finkelman: The Great Greek Hope... a forgotten franchise finally has its star. Young and still improving he provides the best shot at competing deep into the playoffs since peak Ray Allen. Unlike Ray Allen though, his ceiling is literally endless... or it's the roof I'm not sure.

Jimmie: The ceiling is the roof! Let’s look at this though: what if, and this is a HUGE what if, Giannis wanted to move to a contender, if the Bucks can’t stay healthy or mismanage their cap so badly that they are nothing better than first-round fodder as they approach his prime in three or four years? He’s already being touted as the second-best player in the East. Lebron James is 32, which I can tell you is freaking old because I’m also 32. Giannis will be hitting his prime as Lebron is winding down. Isn’t that a plausible scenario in which Giannis could take his otherworldly talent and join (or form) his own super-team a la the Warriors and Cavaliers? The Bucks are going all-in on Giannis and so far it’s paying off, and it’s important because that new stadium is going up, but what if?

Joel: When it comes to the Brewers, or the Bucks in this case, this is always a danger. It is honestly the thing that scares me the most about Giannis. The dude has so much potential, it can make a grown man cry. The scary part though? Being in a small market can see something like that disappear in an instant. He has said all the right things about wanting to stay in Milwaukee and how much he loves it here... but we all know what that actually means when it comes to contract signing day. The Bucks have a weapon in Giannis. Except unlike most NBA players who range somewhere from 'blunt boyscout knife' to 'red ryder BB gun', Giannis more represents the Moonraker laser gun from Goldenye on N64 (Yeah, this wouldn't be a Jimmie and Joel production without video games being brought up). Yes though, it is a very real possibility that he bolts. All he will have to do is say he 'hungers for a championship' like his daily smoothie, write a nicely worded goodbye to fans, and poof, there goes the Bucks best chance since Jesus Shuttlesworth at having a superstar.

The Bucks are in a tough spot here because they HAVE to make sure this works out. They can't simply waste his prime and use the 'we aren't a big market' excuse. The moment that Giannis unlocks any sort of a jump shot, Lasry and Edens need to go all in on bringing a legitimate star into town no matter the price. So here's my question to you, will star free agents in the next few years even consider Milwaukee? They sure as hell never did without Giannis, but will he be truly enough to bring someone that matters to Cream City.

Jimmie: How the hell do you bring up Goldeneye without bringing up the Golden Gun? Giannis Antetokounmpo IS the Golden Gun: a one-hit shot to the heart of pretty much every team that faced him. He led the team in EVERY statistical category.

Greg Monroe chose Milwaukee, and the Bucks repaid him with a playoff trip, the first of his career. The road there was marked by trade rumors for the past year and a half, though, and players notice that. How would a player like to play alongside a rising star, knowing that they will be second banana to anything and everything Giannis does? No max player is coming this year--they don't have the cap room--which means the Bucks are going to have to add pieces through the NBA Draft. After striking--wait for it--gold with Giannis, and so far looking good with last year's pair of picks (Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon), can they keep up the hot streak in player selection?

Joel: Steph Curry is the Golden Gun both in the name of the team he plays for and the fact that he is much more lethal... Come now my child. By the way, Greg Monroe is probably the Cougar Magnum (bulky, slow, but can do some damage in a pinch). ANYYYYYWAYS, the Bucks don't have to add a max player, or even a star immediately. But the team's front office likes to remind us often how they want to compete for championships at some point. Well having Giannis and no other certain all star will get them nowhere. They will literally be the Thunder in that case, making the playoffs with a standout player, but no actual chance of reaching their goals.

Jimmie: Steph Curry doesn’t play for the Bucks, though. In a couple of years, Giannis will be the caliber of player every team covets. In terms of owning the future, it’s true that the Milwaukee Bucks have no certain all-star. Jabari Parker was close before another knee injury. Greg Monroe probably could be borderline all-star material in the right system, but that isn’t it in Milwaukee. Khris Middleton is probably the closest thing to future all-star material. Malcolm Brogdon is terrific, but he’s valuable for things other than scoring, and in a point guard-heavy league these years, there’s too much competition for those backcourt all-star spots. Thon Maker might have the most potential, but he’s raw, and while the flashes he showed in the playoffs and late in the season were exciting, he’s far from a finished product. 

What’s amazing is how well they’ve drafted—Giannis and Thon in the mid-first round, Middleton and Brogdon in the second round, Jabari with the second pick the year he came out with Wiggins—to build the shell of a contender. Are they one piece or two pieces away? Can Middleton be the third-best player on a championship team? Is Jabari going to be able to ascend to a complimentary role to Giannis and play at his near-all-star level that he did before his injury this year? There are so many questions we won’t know the answer to until 2019 or 2020. 2017-18 is not the year the Bucks suddenly become a contender either—Jabari isn’t going to be fully recovered until 2018-19 at the earliest (unless he shakes off the rust in six weeks like Khris Middleton was able to do—and Middleton probably wasn’t even at 100% for the Toronto series).

I don’t think the Bucks become the Thunder. I think the worst case is they become the KG-era or Kevin Love-era Timberwolves: Lots of complimentary pieces failing to achieve their potential at the right time, lots of first-round playoff exits, stuck in the NBA’s dead-end middle-of-the-pack that nets you neither titles nor lottery picks. That’s only slightly better than Giannis bolting—NBA purgatory with a sliver of hope in Giannis versus no Giannis and owning the future for another decade or longer.

Joel: So many questions for me to answer so I'll do them in order!

- They are one or two pieces away, but those one or two pieces are rather large, unfortunately signing a guy like Jason Terry isn't going to keep cutting it.

- Middleton cannot be the third best player on a championship team, especially if he plays like he did this year in the playoffs. I know he was sick, but I'm pretty convinced that he is only the type of guy that can put up numbers in the playoffs in spurts, not consistently.

- Jabari was on his way to doing that until his second ACL injury and as much as people want to pretend like he'll buck the trend (see what I did there), the trend of guys on second ACL surgeries is bleak at best.

You're right about the draft though, remember when Jason Kidd wanted to take over that side of the ball too? Thank god that didn't happen. Also nice to see the Bucks are capable of actually developing some of their guys. Because small market teams have to draft and develop, not just draft (See Pitchers, Brewers).

Finally, the current iteration of the Thunder is probably better off than the KG or Kevin Love Timberwolves. Particularly the Love Wolves (great rock band name if anyone is looking). To avoid turning into any one of those three teams, the Bucks will eventually have to make a CC Sabathia type of move. Because in the current climate of the league, you cannot actually compete for deep runs or championships if you don't have at least two bonafide stars.

Jimmie: Some advice, do not google search "Love Wolves" with safe search turned off. If you wanted to name your band the Love Wolves, get ready for nobody to be able to find it in a mountain of anime... moving on!

Before responding to your answers to my questions that can’t and won’t be answered for a couple of years, the NBA is not the MLB in terms of being able to swing prospects for stud players. First of all, the NBA is built around its stars. If one is moving, there are future first-round draft picks involved. The Bucks have demonstrated a clear ability to maximize their first round picks not named Yi Jianlian. 

As long as they’re not mesmerized by a guy working out against thin air, Milwaukee needs to hang on to its picks, especially as their current core gets more expensive. Second of all, even if a star became available, there are probably only a couple handfuls of guys that would move the needle. There’s only a few that would make them instant title contenders. Those sorts of players are not moving via trade in that last group—Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Steph Curry are only going where they want to go in free agency. Boogie Cousins moving last year was a complete outlier. Any number of other superstar players that could be available will not make the Bucks better than the Cavaliers. So, why take future flexibility away for a run at the 2 or 3 seed, especially when you see a team like Boston—near-contenders but not enough to beat the Cavs—rolling over their considerable assets year to year until they can shoot their shot down the road when LeBron is on the other end of his prime?

If the Bucks are still two steps away from contention, those are two gigantic steps to fill. It’ll either have to come from development or winning yet again in the NBA Draft. That’s painting a pessimistic scenario. So let’s say Middleton’s defense comes around, back to its peak, and he’s knocking down 20 a night. They need to find two players better than that? No team can find two near-max level players on the street, at least ones that are willing to play on a team not playing in Oakland or Cleveland. Whatever free agents they sign will be the Dellavedova/Terry/Teletovic type, role players that grease the skids for Giannis and others to carry them through stretches. So it comes down to Parker/Maker/Brogdon/Middleton getting better (we assume Giannis is still ascending), or at least hoping two of that group develop into players in the conversation for all-star selections. Or, the Bucks finding yet another gem in the NBA Draft. What it means is that there’s no clear answer for the Bucks this offseason, so we won’t know if this is actually the beginning of a championship contender built around one of the best players in the NBA, or a superstar in the midst of failed potential and mediocrity… this generation’s Timberwolves.

Joel: Paging Rashad Vaughn... haha anyways you're right, as of late things have worked out well in the draft. As the team gets better though that's going to be harder to come by. But OK let me kind of reset here. All I'm saying is this. Giannis is amazing and has the potential to be an MVP caliber player. Unfortunately when it comes to competing for conference or NBA championships, that doesn't matter. Russell Westbrook had one of the most ridiculous statistical seasons ever and his team got housed in the first round. It simply doesn't matter how good Giannis ends up being if they can't surround him with more. Having a superstar in the NBA is like being a parent for the Watt family. It doesn't matter what you provide them... they'll always need more food.

The Watt Brothers: An NFL Family
The Watt Brothers: An NFL Family
First J.J. Watt, then Derek Watt, and now T.J. Watt: Three brothers now plying their trade in the NFL

There's a clever metaphor in there somewhere but I'm apparently too dumb to suss it out.

Jimmie: Rashad Vaughn’s development got stunted a bit by not having a D-League team—which isn’t a problem anymore going forward. Vaughn was drafted as outside shooting help. The Bucks have invested heavily in this department. Mirza Teletovic was supposed to be their new outside shooting threat, but really struggled this year (and said as much).

Giannis’ brilliance allows his teammates to be better around him, unlike Westbrook. Westbrook’s team absolutely stuffers when he leaves the floor. He won’t even answer questions about why that is. Antetokounmpo’s stat lines are usually insane, but his steals often lead to easy transition buckets (or windmill dunks).

Bucks Highlights: Giannis with a jam on one end, block on the other
Bucks Highlights: Giannis with a jam on one end, block on the other
Early in the Bucks' win at Sacramento, Giannis Antetokounmpo delivers back-to-back huge plays to spur Milwaukee

Not only that, he stuffs the stat line with assists, draws a crowd wherever he goes, and his vision on the floor is getting better. He’s still stupidly young to be this freaking good. His prime is still three or four years away. If Milwaukee can hang on to him, the Bucks are relevant for the next seven years, maybe even a decade. That’s the key though: if the Bucks lost him (or for some reason traded him), we’re right back to a rudderless ship as far as the Bucks are concerned. Obviously, he has to stay on the mega-superstar trajectory for this to be true, but he’s already cracked stardom. The ceiling is the roof!

Joel: Rashad Vaughn's development got stunted by the fact that he isn't very good at basketball. Also not sure if signing Teletovic and Terry while getting nothing from Vaughn fully qualifies as 'investing heavily' in outside shooting. But I digress.

The length and athleticism that Giannis possesses really gives him a huge advantage on the defensive end. We haven't really touched on this much. While he isn't Kawhi Leonard, he alters shots all over the place. What really blows my mind though is how active his hands are. Somebody his size and length shouldn't just be pick pocketing people at will. Not to mention we somehow forgot to mention that the dude is so long, can jump so high, and is so talented that he recently blocked a shot with his FREAKING ELBOW in a playoff game against the Raptors. 

Think about how good Giannis is now, now add a solid midrange jumper, and a 15% increase in defensive quality as he reaches his prime? Suddenly we're talking about an absolute monster.

Which is why once again I will repeat this... the Bucks HAVE GOT to get this right.

Jimmie: Yeah, Giannis is a generational talent. We’re talking about an entire group of people in Wisconsin who haven’t seen a competitive Bucks team in 16 years—a generation. If they don’t get it done here, I don’t know what fan base they’ll have if it’s another couple of decades before they become relevant again. The new stadium is nice, but you’re not going to fill it with die-hards on a nightly basis if Giannis doesn’t develop, gets traded, or leaves on his own. As far as investing in outside shooting: I was talking pure dollar bills, y’all. Plus, Vaughn was a first-round pick. Before we wrap this up (our most spirited discussion yet this week), and we have this covered in part: What is your best-case and worst-case scenario for the Milwaukee Bucks in four years, when Giannis’ contract runs out?

Joel: Ooooo that's a phenomenal question. Let's go through these individually.

Best Case Scenario: LeBron ages out of being the best player in the league and suddenly the Eastern Conference is wide open. Giannis has developed a quality midrange shot (which makes Aaron Rodgers happy) and has upgraded to OK from the three point line. This makes him borderline unguardable and teams have to spend countless hours prepping for it. The Bucks have convinced a star (not a super star, but a star) who is thirsty for a title to surprisingly join up with Giannis. Jabari almost comes back to full form (I can't imagine a scenario where he reaches his max level) but provides an offensive anchor to the Bucks second unit. Khris Middleton starts to stay healthy and becomes consistent, and Thon turns into a diet version of Kevin Garnett (I think that is a ceiling for him that actually has a greater than 0% chance of happening). Fill out the roster with solid role players, three point shooting, and a defensive minded center and boom, that's a team that can legitimately push for the NBA Finals on a regular basis for a few years.

Worst Case Scenario: Giannis never quite figures out a jumper of any kind. Thon doesn't work out. Jabari's knee injuries have destroyed him physically, and the draft stops producing good picks. Free agents don't come except those like Mirza (so ones that are bad). The team makes the eight-seed repeatedly and goes into full on late-term Herb Kohl mode. Tell me where I got it wrong!

Jimmie: My best-case scenario is pretty obvious: Milwaukee's core carries the Bucks to a finals in 3-5 years, where they bring home a title. If that complimentary star isn't Jabari Parker, it's someone they either draft in the next couple of years, or someone who signs with the Bucks after next season for the chance to contend with the future of the NBA's Eastern Conference. If you tell me Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't in the discussion for being the best player in the East after LeBron James by that point, I'm gon' punch you.

Giannis to Thon: "If you hesitate, I'm going to punch you"
Giannis to Thon: "If you hesitate, I'm going to punch you"
After Milwaukee's win, Giannis Antetokounmpo praised his teammate Thon Maker's efforts and told him to shoot his shot

Worst-case is everything we've already described: the Bucks take on too many mediocre contracts, the core doesn't develop, or simply, Giannis leaves. There's something in Milwaukee going that's great and not having Giannis would destroy that hope for the near future. So, you're not wrong. Everything we talked about in our worst case, though? That's what puts Giannis in at #3 on our list. Nothing happens without Giannis in terms of contention in the next half a decade.

Tomorrow: Another player who if you took him off the team, would make that team not only look very different, but likely send the franchise into an indeterminable length of time spent in the dark ages, again, given the significance of his position. Then, after 10 a.m., we will reveal our most irreplaceable Wisconsin sports figure of 2017 on Big Sports Saturday!

This is part three of a five-part series. Coming Saturday morning: part four and part five! On Saturday, Joel and Jimmie reveal their most irreplaceable Wisconsin sports figure as of 2017.

Photo: Getty Images

Videos: NBA, NBA Draft Express, NBA TV

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